The Ludovico Ensemble’s 2015/16 Season

On September 8, The Ludovico Ensemble will present the first concert of its twelfth season. I’m really excited about the programming this year, especially after taking a much needed break running the group last season.

Ludovico Poster 9_8_15

The thing I missed most during our year-long hiatus was programming concerts. I have a strong desire to see certain pieces in combination and presented a certain way, and it was frustrating not to have that outlet. With programming I’m primarily concerned with focus and concision. In the realm of concision my goal is simply to keep concerts to around 75 minutes in length including stage changes. My reasoning for this is that the music is often complicated and unfamiliar, and even seasoned listeners lose concentration after a time. Focus in programming is a bit more of a nebulous concept but for me it can mean anything from playing pieces by a single composer, or several composers from the same country, or pieces for the same instrumentation, or just a concert featuring a single evening-length work. A cursory glance through seasons past reveals these ideas in practice.

CONCERT 1 – September 8, 2015 8pm / Davis Square Theater, 255 Elm Street Somerville MA

I don’t think my programming betrays the fact that I’m a percussionist, but there is usually one concert a year focused on percussion music. One thing I find unique about percussion music is how much of it is strictly interpretive and requires no formal percussion training. There are quite a few pieces that are standard percussion repertoire that any skilled musician could play. That isn’t to say it isn’t extremely difficult in a sense, just that one need not have spent thousands of hours practicing snare drum in order to perform it. I’ve played with this idea in that past. At the Lucerne Festival in 2011, I presented a solo percussion recital that did not feature a single percussion instrument, or any sticks or mallets. The whole thing seems a bit ridiculous: imagine a violinist commissioning a violin solo, and the composer comes back saying “actually I’ve decided that you’ll just need a melodica, an alarm clock, and a delay pedal for this piece. You can leave the violin at home.” That would indeed be an unlikely scenario for anyone other than a percussionist.

The first concert of the year explores this sort of percussion music. Fritz Hauser’s as we are speaking is scored for four sets of temple blocks played with plastic chop sticks. It is sonically captivating and rhythmically complex, but from the standpoint of technical execution, nothing is stopping a string quartet from playing this piece. Vinko Globokar’s Kvadrat falls in to the same dramatic absurdist realm for which the composer is known. Unconventionally notated and relying largely on written instructions to convey the music, I’d be very interested in seeing a theater group tackle this piece. Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s in for flute and percussion quartet is the most traditional percussion piece on the program, and perhaps the only one requiring some actual percussion training (only then just because there are some snare drum rolls near the end), but its aleatoric nature shows the influence of the long history of music that relies on the interpretive skill of a percussionist rather than on the technical mastery of a specific instrument.

Nick Tolle and Fritz Hauser in Basel, August 2015

Nick Tolle and Fritz Hauser in Basel, August 2015

CONCERT 2 – November 24, 2015 8pm / Seully Hall, 8 The Fenway Boston MA

The Ludovico Ensemble has a long history with the music of local legend Marti Epstein. We first performed her music in 2003, and nine of the Ludovico Ensemble’s twelve concert seasons featured at least one piece by Marti. On this evening we will be celebrating the release of Hypnagogia, a CD of Marti’s music performed by the Ludovico Ensemble. In addition to the title composition, the recording features Grand Island, Hothouse (for piano four hands), and A Little Celestial Tenderness, written for the Ludovico Ensemble’s tenth anniversary. The concert will feature performances of Hothouse and Hypnagogia. The Ludovico Ensemble commissioned Hypnagogia, an evening-length piece for seven players, in 2009. It is an enormously substantial work and I’m incredibly pleased to have had something to do with bringing it in to the world. I hope the release of this recording leads to it being performed by groups far and wide.

CONCERT 3 – December 1, 2015 8pm / St Paul’s Church, 15 St Paul Street Brookline MA

It is by design that the Ludovico Ensemble exists as a collective and does not consist of a specific instrumentation. This allows me as a programmer to jump to and from instrumentations as I please. In the past we’ve had concerts for the standard string quartet, but also more unusual combinations like piano, marimba, english horn, and cello (yes there is an entire concert of music out there for that combination…). This program falls somewhere in the middle with the not quite but sort of well-trodden path of the flute/viola/harp trio. First used by Debussy in his 1915 Sonata, the instrumentation has since been employed by hundreds of composers. The centerpiece of this program is John Tavener’s To a Child Dancing in the Wind, which also features soprano (longtime collaborator Aliana de la Guardia in this performance). The Ludovico Ensemble played this piece once before in 2004, and in spite of its overt sentimentality, it remains a favorite of mine. Some of the middle movements sound to me like what might have been the result if Kate Bush had scored The Wicker Man. Also on the concert are Kaija Saariaho’s New Gates and Marti Epstein’s Nachtvoll.

Concert 4 – May 2, 2015 8pm / Houston Hall, 8 The Fenway Boston MA

I first became familiar with Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s music when we wrote the piece American Temple for The Ludovico Ensemble while he was a student in the Boston Conservatory. It was a remarkably accomplished piece coming from a first year grad student. Beneath a jagged exterior it conveyed a strong sense of lyricism that I often find lacking in modern music, and something I’ve admired in all of Mischa’s subsequent output. He’s been the ensemble’s composer in residence since 2009 and on this evening we celebrate the release of an as yet untitled recording of his chamber music (I’m thinking of naming the disc I Might Be Wrong after one of the featured pieces, but we’ll see), all pieces written for the Ludovico Ensemble. While the recording features in from the first concert of this season and two other pieces from seasons past, this concert features new pieces for cimbalom and soprano by Mischa and Marti Epstein. I’m not yet sure what Mischa’s piece will be like, but Marti is apparently writing a cantata about Mary Magdelene. I’ll be playing cimbalom, and I’ll be joined by soprano Jen Ashe.

A Rough Guide to Slide Whistles

This week I’m performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The percussion part includes difficult passages for two tuned slide whistles. In addition to the finer points of tuned slide whistle, this article might also help to illustrate the sheer amount of collective effort it takes to put on an event like this. Dozens of musicians will play hundreds of thousands of notes during this concert. Even for me, the slide whistle part isn’t on my top 5 list of concerns. I also have tons of hard cimbalom notes to play. Aside from the musicians, there is also the administrative side of BMOP, raising the money to produce the event and handling all the logistics. All of that makes a few slide whistle notes being sort of in tune a relatively insignificant detail, yet several man hours went in to that task alone.

While spending an inordinate amount of time modifying a slide whistle, I often wondered “Does it really matter if these notes are in tune?” It would make my life a lot easier if it didn’t. But I remembered an experience I had 10 years ago playing Steve Mackey’s Eating Greens, which involves a comparably fussy part for tuned flexatone. I practiced flexatone for three hours to learn the feel of where the pitches were. At the first rehearsal, the conductor made me play the part with in unison with the violins, so in that case the practice paid off. Better safe than sorry.

The slide whistle is typically used as a non-pitched glissando sound effect, but Ligeti writes specific pitches in moving lines, and if that wasn’t enough, he also has the two slide whistlers in parallel fourths. Given that it is written for slide whistle, I seriously doubt the intention is for it to be perfectly in tune, but I at least want to be in the right ball park. So I could either practice the slide whistle until I become so familiar with it that I can navigate the intervals by feel alone, or construct some sort of tuning gauge. I went with the gauge.

This particular slide whistle worked well because of the L-shaped slide. It has a range of E4-C#6, not counting higher notes achievable through over-blowing.

The actual process of making the tuning slide was not difficult, but coming up with the design took some effort. I asked some of my crafty neighbors if they had any ideas, but their suggestions were far too complicated. I ended up with a simple design using a square dowel rod, double sided tape, and gaff tape.

I cut a length of the dowel equal to the length of the slide whistle, drilled a small hole in one end, and attached it to the slide. I also used to small bits of dowel to keep the moving dowel centered on the slide whistle. I attached the two small bits with double sided tape, then gaff taped them all together. I then marked the pitches with black sharpie on white gaff tape. The end of the dowel rod marks the pitch.

The cuts bits of dowel rod. I didn't end up needing the anchor nuts.

The cut bits of dowel rod. I didn’t end up needing the anchor nuts.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

 

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

 

Making the tuning gauge was somewhat frustrating because the pitch changes dramatically depending on the dynamic. So I guess beware of that if you have to undertake this project.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution for tuned slide whistle would be for the body of the instrument to be transparent with the pitches etched directly on to it. The stopper inside the instrument could then act as the gauge. I was genuinely surprised to learn that Kolberg hasn’t thought of this already with a specially made “Ligeti Slide Whistle”.

I bought a few other slide whistles in preparation for this part. Here’s some info on those.

This one has by far the biggest range (D4-F#6 on the one I have. I’d be surprised that was consistent from instrument to instrument). It is also sounds a bit airy when played loud, as opposed to the Acme which has a more pure pitch.

This one sounds as cheap as it looks. The range is A5-F#6.

And here is a dog slide whistle. It has a one octave range of G4-G5.

 

Flexatone, Vibraslap, Guiro, Ratchet… ugh

The addition of flexatone, vibraslap, guiro, or ratchet to a multi-percussion setup can throw a wrench in the proceedings. Mounting the instruments for easy access with hardware widely available in the US is difficult, and navigating the techniques required for each instrument can make for some awkward choreography.

I recently performed Cells by Hanspeter Kyburz. In addition to tons of hard notes on keyboard instruments, Kyburz threw in the odd vibraslap, bowed flexatone, or guiro scrape, often with less than a second to get from one instrument to the next. Here are some solutions I came up with for that performance.

Guiro

If you see a guiro part in a modern European piece, odds are the composer has this in mind:

It is about three feet in length so playing a long, loud note is easy, and it is simple to mount on a stand.

This is what we usually have access to in the States:

The grooved portion is less than a foot long, so playing anything loud that isn’t staccatissimo is difficult, and your mounting options are limited. Without access to an extra-long Kolberg, my preferred guiro set up is a Meinl wood guiro with a Meinl guiro holder. Pearl also makes a guiro holder but it should be avoided. I like the Meinl wood guiro because it is quite durable compared to a traditional gourd guiro. You can throw it in a trap bag and not worry about it being crushed.

Flexatone

There aren’t a lot of flexatones on the market. The LP models are ubiquitous, but I prefer this Dobani model that I found on Amazon. The resting position of the beaters on an LP is right up against the metal, so it is difficult to pick it up and put it down without making a ton of noise. People often solve this problem either by putting moleskin on the beaters to soften them, or for bowing purposes, by rubber-banding the beaters to the metal. Fuss with that if you want, or just get a better (and cheaper) flexatone. On the Dobani model, the beaters are further away from the metal, so you can pick it up and put it down silently. It is also possible to do bowed glisses without interference from the beaters. The size and range of the Dobani is similar to the smaller of the two LP models.

Dobani

LP

LP products should generally be avoided, if for no other reason than to spite them for building the most poorly designed percussion product of all time:

Worst Stand Ever

Vibraslap

LP vibraslap mounts are completely worthless, yet they seem to be the only ones on the market. They do not clamp solidly to the vibraslap so they need to be constantly fussed with and they dampen the vibration. I found a solution that works very well for mounting vibraslaps:

 

That is a Meinl product designed for mounting cowbells and the like to conga, bongo, and djembe lugs, because I guess that is something people need to do? It works perfectly as a vibraslap mount. They should really market it as such.

Ratchet

This doesn’t have anything to do with the aforementioned Kyburz piece, but could prove to be useful information if you are ever playing Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf or another piece where you need quick access to a ratchet.

“Whirlybird” style ratchets can be easily mounted to a cymbal stand or clamp.

The common CB ratchet can be attached to a cymbal stand by adjusting the clamp that is supposed to attach it to a music stand (which never works).

Remove that wingnut

Then you are left with this

Then jam it into a stand

Tolberg Percussion: Summer DIY Projects

Bass Drum Overhaul

In 2007 I bought my first concert bass drum, a 28″ WFL Ludwig drum made in 1939. It needed some serious repairs, so I set it aside. Shortly thereafter I got a second bass drum that was in good shape, so I never got around to repairing or using the first bass drum. I actually forgot about that old WFL for several years and only unearthed it from the basement when I moved to Lowell in 2013.

Unfortunately I don’t have a “before” pic of this drum so you can’t see what it looked like prior to the work that was done. Suffice it to say, it was in bad shape. The lugs were dented, the tension rods were rusted and warped, and the drum rattled like crazy. So I started by having the hardware removed from the shell, then filling the holes with a two part wood filler. The shell was then sanded, coated in an ebony polyshade, lightly sanded again, and topped with spray lacquer.

I definitely did not want to go through the laborious process of drilling new holes and installing new lugs. I thought back to a few bass drums I’ve seen in the past that did not have lugs at all. The heads were tensioned by a single tension rod that spanned the depth of the shell, and was inserted into a threaded claw on one side. This style of hardware went out of style a long time ago, and the one set of vintage threaded claws I found on eBay were too small for the shell. After shelving the project again for a couple months, I thought of a cheap and easy solution, which is often the answer in many a drum hardware question: threaded rods.

You can get simple threaded rods at any hardware store. So I took a bass drum claw to Home Depot and found the correct gauge of threaded rod, cut them to size, and tightened them to the claws with wing nuts. I then used felt pads, also available at most hardware stores, to form a center support to keep the rods from bending under pressure and scratching the shell.

I’m not sure why threaded claws went out of style. Anyone with an old bass drum knows that rattles are a huge problem. The rattles are almost always caused by the lugs, which on a relatively loosely tensioned concert bass drum are not really necessary. Another benefit of the threaded claw is that the two heads are automatically equal in tension.

I’ve heard a lot of bass drums of this approximate size and vintage, and this drum sounds better than any of them by a mile. I think it is due to the simple and unobtrusive hardware and the automatic balance between the two heads.

Here is the written date from the inside of the shell.

Here is the written date from the inside of the shell.

My neighbor and craftsman extraordinaire  J Haley cutting the threaded rods to size with an angle grinder. He did all of the aforementioned work on the shell as well.

My neighbor and craftsman extraordinaire J Haley cutting the threaded rods to size with an angle grinder. He did all of the aforementioned work on the shell as well.

Closeup of the wing nut securing the threaded rod to the claw. The other side of the drum is a mirror image.

Closeup of the wing nut securing the threaded rod to the claw. The other side of the drum is a mirror image.

This is what you use for the center support.

This is what you use for the center support.

Closeup of the center support.

Closeup of the center support, with J Haley looking on in approval.

The center support felts don't look great from up close, but from a slight distance you can barely notice them.

The center support felts don’t look great from up close, but from a slight distance you can barely notice them.

The finished shell.

The finished shell.

It is also worth noting that this style of hardware is about 5x cheaper than traditional drum hardware.

Steve Weiss Saucer Bells (keyboard layout)

In the context of a large Steve Weiss order, and somewhat on a whim, I bought these Saucer Bells. I liked the idea of having a weird set of chromatic bells, and for getting an octave of something they are pretty cheap.

As pictured, they come hung on a single length of rope. In that fashion they sound like a pretty decent bell tree, but that isn’t what I wanted them for. Using more or less the same method I described in this earlier post about making crotale stands, I made a stand for these saucer bells with a keyboard layout.

I'm not sure what I'll use these for, but I know I'll use them someday.

I’m not sure what I’ll use these for, but I know I’ll use them someday.

I finished the stand further by using beveled and flat rubber washers (found in the plumbing aisle) to keep the bells from rattling against the bolts. I also used the smallest 2 and 3 inch bolts I could find, which were still slightly too big for the holes in the bells, so I just drilled the holes in the bells to make them bigger. This did not change the intonation at all. Note: these bells are quite in tune.

A useful innovation I stumbled upon, which can also be applied to homemade crotale stands, was to use a coupling nut to mount the instrument to a cymbal stand. This is similar to the way in which brand name crotale stands are mounted. For this, I used a 3/8″ coupling nut with a carriage bolt and lock nut. It fits well in to light-weight Yamaha stands, and is more sturdy than some of the hardware I’ve seen on brand name crotale stands in the past.

The range of the bells is C7-C8 (the noted range of C6-C7 on Weiss’ website is incorrect). In terms of overtones and sustain, they are closer to a glockenspiel than to crotales, but they are no substitute for either.

Trap Tables

This one is simple: You can spend over $100 on a professionally made trap table, or you can spend $10 and make your own. Here is what you need:

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Then do this:

Use two layers of the drawer liner.

Use two layers of the drawer liner, and gaff tape.

Mount it on a folding keyboard stand. If you want to get fancy, add some trim to the back and sides to keep things from falling off. This particular stand measures 20″x24″ (single slab of 20″x48″ cut in half, makes two tables).

Hooked Dowels

I shake my head in disappointment when I see the complicated and ineffective ways that percussionists use to hang instruments. Unless everyone goes out and buys specialized Gibraltar or Kolberg whatevers for every need, we’d all be better off if percussionists the world over adopted this method.

Get a dowel and some 1″ cup hooks and do this:

I think credit goes to Bob Schulz for inventing these.

Then you can do things like this without the need for plastic zip ties or whatever method you were using before:

You can also make smaller versions with a hole drilled in the center, which can support a single heavier item with one cymbal stand instead of two.

30″ Wind Gong

Organizational Life Pro Tip

I would have saved a lot of money if I did this a long time ago…

Tolberg Percussion – Electronic Drums

To make any sort of living as a freelance musician, you must live in or near an urban area. That situation makes it hard for percussionists to practice once we are out of school, since it is difficult to find a space that can handle the amount of instruments we have or the noise they make.

I recently moved to Western Avenue Lofts in Lowell MA from a small one bedroom unit in Jamaica Plain, more than doubling my living space in the process while decreasing my rent. In my old place, I had no room for my instrument collection, and for four years slept on a makeshift bed in the living room with timpani and bass drums towering over me. Now, I have ample space to live comfortably while having my instruments set up. As I turn my head to the left from my office corner I’m looking at three cimbaloms, a five octave marimba, four timps, a keyboard, and a xylophone. It is a great situation.

High ceilings too.

High ceilings too.

Even now with the space issue solved, there is still the noise issue. I although I live in an incredibly welcoming community of artists, I’d have run out of goodwill on day one if I played an acoustic drum set at full volume in my loft. So, I spent several months in 2013 researching electronic drum sets.

It is not a welcoming market. There is not a lot of middle ground between e-drums that look like toys and $7,500 top of the line Rolands. If you have the money to burn, buy the high end V-drums by all means. They are miles above the rest. I do ok, but I’m not about to spend that kind of dough on electronic drums. I eventually settled on the Alesis DMX premium six piece kit.

The biggest problem with most electronics kits is the size of the pads. I prefer to play on four piece kits, so if I’m using a smaller kit I would have a 13″ snare, 10″ tom, 14″ floor tom, and an 18″ bass drum. A lot of cheap E-drums have 8″ pads for everything. It just doesn’t feel like playing on a real drum set. The Alesis DMX comes close with a 12″ snare, 10″ tom, and 12″ floor tom. The size of the bass drum pad doesn’t matter for spacing, and this kit came with a couple toms that I don’t really need but am happy to use. I bought it on Amazon last year when they were offering a $300 rebate, so all in this kit was under $1,000. Not bad. They aren’t offering the rebate now in February 2014, but maybe they’ll do it again in the holiday season.

The biggest complaint everyone has about Alesis kits is the ambient sound that the pads create. The whole point of electronic drums for my purposes was a drum set alternative that I could use without making a lot of noise, but really, out of the box these pads are incredibly loud. But there are solutions to that problem. There is a cottage industry of people home-making mesh head conversion kits for these drum sets. I bought one of those from eBay, and while it did decrease the volume dramatically, the heads were so shoddily made that double stokes and bounces became impossible. The easier and cheaper solution that I found out about later is just to put Remo Silentstroke heads on all the pads. (Update 8/15/14: Pearl Muffle Heads are better.)

You’ll notice in the stock photo of the kit, it is arranged in a 5 piece configuration with an extra floor tom. The rack is customizable with a little creativity, and I was able to turn it in to a four piece with an extra floor tom and an auxiliary pad on the left. Why people want a medium tom where the ride cymbal should go, I’ll never know.

Demon Drive pedal not included, but recommended

Demon Drive pedal not included, but recommended

Another great thing about having these electronic drums at the ready is that they helped me overcome a rather pesky bout of tennis elbow. In March 2013 I moved heavy gear every day for several weeks, and as a result my left elbow became fairly useless for the better part of 10 months. I didn’t play an instrument outside of rehearsals and performances for that period of time if I could avoid it. With a steady regiment of rest and enough anti-inflammatories to kill an elephant, I no longer wake up with crippling pain in my elbow, but after that period of time my chops definitely suffered a bit. Getting these electronic drums and just sort of jamming on them with varying degrees of intensity got me back in to shape pretty quickly.

But perhaps the greatest thing about practicing on electronic drums is the complete inhibition it allows. I have a cheap PA plugged in to the kit, but I mostly just hear them through headphones with no external amplification. When I lived in JP, I practiced in a complete dump in South Boston: a building filled with burn out rock star wannabes that were barely toilet trained, but I could make all the noise I wanted to without complaint. I practiced drum set a lot in that building. But I did so with the knowledge that other people could hear what I was doing, and one way or another that changed how I played. When I play electronic drums in my loft, absolutely no one can hear me. It gives me the freedom to be experimental, to try things out, to make mistakes, to fail miserably, and as a result, to get better.

Tolberg Percussion: How to Make a Crotale Stand

The DIY ethic is intrinsic to the percussion world. Percussionists are frequently required to perform on readymades rather than “real” instruments, and most proper percussion instruments can trace their origins to crude prototypes using the simplest of raw materials. The lack of an established performance practice for modern repertoire also leads us to find our own solutions for realizing a given piece. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it is expensive to acquire all the things you need. Cheap, homemade solutions can be a lifesaver. Even over a relatively short career, I’ve come up with (and stolen) some ideas that have helped me immensely. Most of them involve a skillful navigation of Home Depot.

This week I’m playing Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion for solo bassoon and ensemble. The percussion part requires crotales, but only three pitches. This is just one of many pieces that only requires a few pitches out of the 2.5 octaves of available crotales, and having all the unneeded pitches can make a large percussion setup more difficult to navigate. With that in mind, I set out to make a stand that could hold just a few crotales.

I started with a standard steel bar from Home Depot. I’m not sure if they have an official name, but they are usually next to the dowels. The length of the bar will be too long, so you’ll need to saw it in two. This can be done with a simple hacksaw. It won’t be the most fun thirty minutes of your life but it will work. Then, make drill marks where you want the crotales to go using a laser level for alignment.

For drilling the holes, do yourself a favor and get a corded drill, not a battery powered one. As you can guess, drilling through a steel bar requires a lot of power and a battery charged drill won’t get it done. The drilled bar will look like this. The larger hole in the middle is for the cymbal stand that will eventually hold it.

Now you are ready to put mounting bolts in the bar. I used three-inch 10-24 bolts since they are compatible with Zildjian crotale wing nuts. Make sure they are three inches long so that the mounted crotale has room to sit above the cymbal stand wing nut. To secure the bolts to the bar, make sure to use stop nuts. This will prevent the bolt from loosening. After this step it should look like this:

Now you need to add another stop nut about halfway down the bolt that the crotale will sit on.

Then put one layer of moleskin around the bolt so the crotale won’t buzz against it.

It is helpful if you can get your hands on the rubber washers that Zildjian uses on their crotale mounts. I happened to have some lying around, but if you don’t have access to any, I’m sure Home Depot will have a suitable substitute. Do not use metal washers. They will buzz. Here it the mounting bar on a cymbal stand with the bottom washers on.

Now you are ready to add the crotales, the top washer, and the wing nut. I made this bar to hold six crotales, and the finished products looks like this:

Since the stand is long enough to hold six crotales, there is room to hang more instrument underneath the crotales without hitting the cymbal stand.

I mentioned above that the original bar from Home Depot had to be sawed in to two pieces, so I used the left over bit to make a three-crotale version.

These little items will make countless pieces much easier to play, and the total cost of the materials for both stands was $25.